Secularization, or the decline in the authority of religious institutions, became a pronounced feature of Western culture in the 20th century, especially in its latter half. Secularization has affected the history of Western sacred space in four ways: (a) It has helped to shape the concept of “sacred space” so that it designates a space that helps generate a personal religious experience independent of religious rituals and teachings. (b) It has caused many houses of worship to use architectural forms not previously associated with religion in order to link their religious communities to the respected realms of business, science, and entertainment. And it has motivated religious communities to craft spaces that encourage worshipers to recognize God at work in the secular world and to demonstrate to others the continued relevance of religion. (c) Many former houses of worship have been destroyed or converted to other uses. Sometimes this occurred not because of declining membership but in order to relocate to a more favorable building or location. Nonetheless, these changes have created a more secular cityscape. Other times destruction and conversion have been the product of state-sponsored regimes of secularization or a decline in the number of clergy or church supporters. The reuse of these former houses of worship often results in the association of religious symbols with commercial or personal endeavors. It also raises challenges for maintaining public space in dense urban environments and for preserving artistic and cultural heritage. Given the increasing closure of churches, in 2018 the Pontifical Council of Culture issued guidelines to guide Roman Catholics in determining best uses for buildings no longer needed for worship. (d) Spaces which are not linked to religious communities, especially museums and monuments, came to be frequently designed in ways similar to historic sacred spaces. For this reason and others, they are esteemed by many people as places to encounter the sacred in a secularized world.
Secularization and Sacred Space
Christian Sacred Architecture
Beginning with the Renaissance, the architecture of churches in the West was shaped by new cultural and liturgical demands that reshaped the spaces of Christian worship. Renaissance Christians found models of urban monumentality and geometric harmony in the architecture of classical Rome that they deemed lacking in their existing Gothic forms. At the same time, both Catholics and Protestants placed new emphasis on preaching and on the ability of worshipers to see the liturgy. These factors decisively reshaped church architecture. The rational austerity of the Renaissance, however, soon gave way to the more exuberant decoration of the baroque and, in time, to a revival of the Gothic. Beginning in the late 18th century, it became valued for its association with mystery, organic development, and the endurance of faith amid the rise of scientific rationalism. By the mid-19th century, an eclecticism in architecture had developed where many church builders used varied styles to actualize buildings of many plans in order to bring the desired historical and emotional associations to the structure, or simply to distinguish it from its neighbors. Yet, architectural principles—often associated with the Gothic—that emphasized the integral relation of form, structure, and function led many church builders to embrace architectural modernism. They rejected applied ornament, especially that which hid the structure of the building. Concrete, steel, and glued laminated wood beams made possible new designs often with a minimalist aesthetic and innovative ground plans. As in the 16th, so in the 20th century this architectural shift was associated with new values and liturgical demands. For many there was a fundamental concern with the architectural expression of the immanence of God. Historical styles and dim light seemed wrongly to suggest that God was not part of the contemporary world. Along with this, liturgical ressourcement fostered throughout the 20th century by the Liturgical Movement and endorsed by the Second Vatican Council championed the idea that liturgy was “the work of the people,” a corporate activity in which all participated. This led to the development of the “modern communal church” as a liturgical form. Many historic buildings were significantly altered. Within thirty years, a sizable revolution was insisting on more traditional, often classical, architectural forms ensuring that future church building would be shaped by a dialogue between tradition and the modern.
In the heart of the Lower Galilee lie the remains of Sepphoris, capital of the Galilee during long periods of antiquity. Both literary sources and archaeological finds indicate that the city’s population included pagans, heretics, and Christians living alongside the Jewish population. Many sages lived in the city, which, according to rabbinic literature, boasted numerous synagogues and academies (batei midrash). When Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (the Patriarch of Judaea) moved to Sepphoris at the beginning of the 3rd century, the Jews gained a significant presence on the city council. With the growth of the Christian community came the construction of churches and the involvement of the episcopus (head of the Christian community) in municipal affairs. Economically, Sepphoris had become a well-established city due to the fertile soil in the nearby valleys and its active trade with the immediate surroundings and distant markets. Hellenistic Sepphoris was built on its hill and slopes. Early in the 2nd century ce, the city spread considerably eastward, boasting an impressive grid of streets with a colonnaded cardo and decumanus running through its centre. Various public buildings were built in the city, including a temple, a forum, bathhouses, a theatre, a monumental building identified as a library or archive, as well as churches, synagogues, and some other structures dating to the early Byzantine period. Most of the common people lived in simple houses, while the wealthy lived in spacious, well-planned dwellings. The architectural layout of these large structures is impressive, as are the more than sixty colourful mosaics from the 3rd to 6th centuries ce uncovered in its private and public buildings. The various depictions in the mosaics have parallels in other cities of the Roman and Byzantine East, not only enhancing the ancient ruins of Sepphoris but also providing invaluable information about the city and its population. The wealth of evidence emerging from Sepphoris offers perhaps the greatest insight into Jewish society and its changing attitudes towards the Graeco-Roman culture to which it was exposed. This new outlook did not occur overnight or in all strata of Jewish society; rather, it was an ongoing process that intensified in the Roman period and reached a peak in the 5th and 6th centuries ce.